Extra ordinary lives from our Biography Collection

This month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library gives us a holiday from the famous, the illustrious, the eminent, the idolised, the household-named, the great, the infamous and the notorious that inhabit our collection.

As well as housing many books about those we are likely to have heard of, the collection is also home to many memoirs of ordinary people with no special claim to being remarkable.  Often the only publication of a person who, perhaps looking back on a childhood in a long gone age, feels moved to record what everyday life was like back then, these books are fascinating records of the lives of ordinary working men and women.  Families, school, industry, war, immigration and emigration – all of these subjects are examined by a multitude of voices.

We can find evocations of particular times and places preserved for ever by those who, without ever intruding into the public eye, shared the lives of the man and woman in the street (or in the field, or on the mountain).

Location is often important in these kinds of books, with the authors striving to recreate a very specific corner of the world. Many London neighbourhoods feature – Lambeth in Mary Chamberlain’s record of the lives of working class women from 1913 to 1989, Bethnal Green whose atmosphere of the 1920s-40s was described by Doris M. Bailey, Blackfriars where Bella Burge ran a boxing ring from 1910, Islington where Gill Brason’s stint as a park keeper in the 70s shows us a neighbourhood on the brink of huge change.  Many regions of the UK, both rural and urban, are also given a voice – John Ackerman’s South Wales, Ralph Glasser’s Gorbals, Arthur Barton’s Jarrow, J. J. Bagley’s three centuries of Lancashire diaries; Anne Burling’s East Anglia, James Maggs’s Southwold, to name just a small sample.

 

We can also eavesdrop on ordinary lives around the world – a boyhood in Sierra Leone in the early 20th century is hauntingly described by Robert Wellesley Cole, Iris Gioia and Clifford Thurlow interview the people they meet on a trip to Eastern Europe at a pivotal moment in the history of the region, in 1990; the Dar family describe how their lives as carpet sellers are impacted by the tumultuous history of Kashmir; Forrest Carter leaves a unique record of Cherokee life in 1930s Tennessee, and Glückel of Hamelin recounts the highs and lows of her days in the Jewish community of Hamburg with such immediacy that it is hard to believe she was writing almost 400 years ago.

As usual, we have no shortage of local interest – read about Joe Nixon starting up a youth club in 1950s Notting Hill, Mary Wylde a 1930s Kensington housewife, and life at Holland Park School in the 80s as recounted by John-Paul Flintoff (I can vouch for the accuracy of that particular account, being an ex-Holland Park pupil of exactly Flintoff’s vintage)!

Again as always, our  Biography Collection yields a rich harvest – Isobel Charman’s “The Great War, the People’s Story” looks at the impact of that huge conflict on ordinary citizens, R. J. W. Selleck’s “Not so Eminent Victorians” finds 19th century immigrants to Australia building an education system to transform people’s lives, and there are socio-cultural studies of a typically progressive kind from the 60s, taking a sample of 14 year old school children or of young people in care and interviewing them about their hopes and dreams.  Many people have chosen to write about their working lives – so we have a survey of working people from Hackney in the 1930s, and stories of countless professions including taxi driver, station master, nurse, teacher, miner, shop assistant and cowboy.

It’s not quite true to say that all of the writers featured are people you’ll never have heard of.  Some of the people featured in these books later became famous, sometimes through the books themselves – Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie, for example, is a classic of rural British memoir, and Jennifer Worth has become familiar to all through her “Call the Midwife” books and their enormously successful TV adaptation.  But all of them are accounts of life before fame or fortune had visited, when they were deep in the obscurity of ordinary life.

What is proven by these commonplace, everyday memoirs is that, in fact, there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  These writers are visited by extraordinary and sometimes deeply strange turns of events. Some go on to do unusual things that take them far from their beginnings. They are caught up in epic moments of world history.  But even if they simply live out their lives in relatively uneventful ways, they show that every life is in its own way remarkable, and that the voices of those who have never sat at a high table or stepped on a red carpet are often the voices that tell us most about who we were and are.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Edited to add –

If you’re interested to read more about some of the people mentioned in this post, do take a look at the eResources we have on biographies such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These are free to use with your Kensington and Chelsea library card.

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50th anniversary of the moon landing

Fifty years ago, the relationship of people to the moon changed forever in a way our ancestors could scarcely have imagined.  For millennia, people all over the world had watched the moon, worshipped it, immortalised it in poetry and song, attributed all kinds of influences to it, and acquired scientific understanding of it.  On 21 July 1969, hours after landing their spacecraft on 20 July, two human beings actually walked on it.

This moment has become iconic, and it’s not hard to imagine the impact it must have had at the time.  Twenty per cent of the world’s population watched the ghostly glowing images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong taking those “giant steps for mankind” (and this at a time when there was far less electronic imagery in people’s lives than there is now).  It was the subject of the BBC’s first ever all-night broadcast, and even fifty years later still boasts the fifth largest TV audience of all time.

Knowing that the mission of Apollo 11 was successful, it is hard to remember that at the time this success was far from taken for granted; President Nixon’s speech writer prepared a just-in-case address to be read if the two astronauts failed to get back safely to their craft and had to be abandoned to a lunar death.  In the event, the joy of the interplanetary phone call in which Nixon congratulated them as they stood on the moon was sustained by their safe return.

The cumbersome movements of the heavily-suited men on the moon’s surface was the culmination of the 15-year-old Space Race, one of the key battles of the Cold War – after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man to enter outer space in 1961, the USA was determined not to lose out on another extra-terrestrial “first”.

As always, our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library doesn’t disappoint, and has yielded a host of astronauts, cosmonauts, astronomers, space engineers and astrophysicists for this month’s display.  We can read Buzz Aldrin’s own descriptions of his moon walk in his evocatively titled “Magnificent Desolation”, in which he also writes movingly of the painful struggles of his life on earth.  We have some books produced (in English) in the Soviet Union – a 1962 edition of the memoirs of “Hero of the Soviet Union – Soviet Cosmonaut no. 1” Yuri Gagarin, and another from 1979 with the story of the Soviet side of the Space Race described in dramatic prose.

We have some fascinating biographies of some of the men and women whose scientific work helped pave the way for the moon landing  –  like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, sometimes called “the greatest woman astronomer of all time”, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983, who was still a teenager when his formulation of the “Chandrasekhar Limit” led to the discovery of neutron stars and black holes.

Placing the moon landing within its context in the history of science, we have some wonderful books on the great minds who moved forward understanding of the universe in previous centuries – find Newton, Einstein, Corpenicus, Kepler, Galileo and Hawking in biographies that illuminate all their faces and phases.

Space exploration will continue to develop – and, despite having been walked on by mere mortals, the moon retains its mysterious beauty, and continues to inspire love songs.  That hazily-filmed moment in 1969 still haunts all those who witnessed it live, and still resonates with the sense of how tiny we are, and how great we can be.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Victorian diaries in our Biography Collection

Our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is home to many different kinds of biographical book, and that includes a large number of diaries.  These provide a very special kind of insight into a people’s lives.

Some diaries have become vital parts of the world’s heritage and have been read by millions, like those of Anne Frank and Samuel Pepys.  Some are the private jottings of ordinary people, whose experience of key moments in history have made them invaluable witnesses.  Others, kept by the famous, may have been written with at least one eye on posterity, or may have been intended to be private, and now afford a glimpse behind the public mask.

Diaries can mix records of hugely significant events and musings on enormous philosophical questions with the minutiae of everyday life – so the Pre-Rapahelite artists documented by William Michael Rossetti debate the meaning of art one minute and complain about faulty stovepipes, sore throats and toothache the next (many diaries reveal the chronic discomfort of life in earlier periods), and George Bernard Shaw meticulously records the prices of the train tickets, newspapers and ginger beer he purchased on the way to lecture engagements at which he speculated about the future of humanity.

This year’s Cityread London showcased the fictional London diary of a young Muslim woman in Sofia Khan is not Obliged by Ayisha Malik.  We wanted to plan an event to link our Biography Collection to this, and were also mindful of the fact that it was the bicentenary of Queen Victoria’s birth, down the road at Kensington Palace, on 24 May.  The idea of having a look at some of the diaries in our collection that were kept by diverse London residents and visitors during Victoria’s reign gave me a great opportunity to dip into some wonderful examples of one of my favourite kinds of biography, eventually selecting thirteen different voices to try to give some snapshots of London life between 1837 and 1901.

Given that most diaries in this period – and certainly most of those published – were kept by the well-to-do, it was a challenge to find the voices of those in more humble circumstances, but the diary of Hannah Cullwick gives a unique insight into the life of a domestic servant, and the struggles of the destitute were shockingly recorded by minister’s daughter Helen G. McKenny as she made philanthropic visits in the Old Street area.

I was fascinated to read about Keshub Chandra Sen’s visit to London to promote links between British and Indian social reformers, and to discover that Leo Tolstoy’s visit to a school in Chelsea as part of research into setting up schools for the peasant children on his Russian estate, left a legacy of 24 individual school boys’ accounts of a single day in 1861, on which they studied, played, fought, had boating accidents and acted as fences for stolen goods, amongst other things.

Local Kensington detail gave Marion Sambourne’s diaries an especial charm, and the fact that Malik’s Cityread book continues the genre of the humorous fictional diary which has given us Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, allowed me to look at a Victorian fictional diary – Happy Thoughts by F. C. Burnand – which graced the pages of Punch 20 years before its more famous successor The Diary of a Nobody, (which Burnand edited), and which is still laugh-out-loud funny over 140 years later.  Of course, Queen Victoria herself was a prolific diarist, and extracts from her own writings revealed a remarkable juxtaposition of the stately and the intimately domestic.

The bulk of our Biography Collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (although of course it comes right up to date with some very recent publications, and our oldest book dates from the early seventeenth century), so this was also a good opportunity to look at some of the physical aspects of our Victorian books.  The late Victorians loved the glamorous glitz of gilding on their bindings, and many biographies of this period sport beautifully detailed medallion portraits of their subjects.

It’s always very evocative to look at the handwritten inscriptions, personal bookplates, school prize labels and typically ornate library stamps of this period – in the spine of one book I found part of a Victorian newspaper advert, and the wonders of the Internet allowed me to reconstruct the full text.

This unique collection contains a treasure trove of insights and knowledge, not only in the content of the books, but also in their physical fabric, which gives a fascinating sense of the Victorians who wrote, published, bound, decorated, inscribed, catalogued and kept them, preserving them in private and public libraries until they found their way to our collection, where we can enjoy them today.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

The winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced on Wednesday 5 June; and well done to Tayari Jones’ with her book An American Marriage.

We’d already blogged about some of the titles on this year’s shortlist.

And here are our thoughts about the others, including this year’s winner.

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My Sister the Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite

Set in Nigeria and, as the title suggests, this novel is about two sisters, one a beautiful serial killer and the other a plain nurse who cleans up after her sister’s crimes.  This is not really a crime thriller, but a dark comedy.  The book is energetic and very funny.  It surprises and delights and has a young feel about it.  The younger sister, Ayoola, is at once a seductive beauty, a cold-blooded killer, a spoilt daughter and a young woman preoccupied with fashion and social media.  The older sister, Korede, is serious and dutiful by contrast, in love with a doctor she works with who inevitably falls for her Ayoola.  The sisters’ relationship is complex – competitive and antagonistic, but they are partners, each one suffering in their own way and both needing the other.  This book stayed with me and I loved its vibrant style.  It can seem a little like a soap opera, but what is done very well and what lingers after the story is finished, is the view of a society that perpetuates violence against women on many levels.  Like Circe and Ordinary People, it has a lot to say about what it means to be a woman and women’s complex relationships with each other.  This book stood out as highlighting important issues is a very clever, funny and new way.

Milkman by Anna Burns

Middle sister lives in a world where it is dangerous to be interesting, dangerous to have a name or to name others; a world where what is said or unsaid can have devastating consequences. Middle sister tries to keep to herself but when Milkman takes an interest in her the rumours begin to spread.

When I started this it felt like science fiction or dystopia but as I learned more about Middle Sister’s world I started to think perhaps this was closer to home than I thought. It cleverly exposes the absurdity of what we are willing to accept as normal. It has an unusual structure as it is written almost as a stream of consciousness and the story jumps around a lot chronologically. It is so original that it doesn’t really remind me of anything I’ve read before. I think one of the most striking things is how current and of the moment it feels and so I was not surprised it won.

 The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker 

‘The Silence of the Girls’ is the perfect title for Pat Barker’s reimagining of ‘The Iliad’ told through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is the cause of the infamous quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles and yet in Homer’s version, although we get to hear powerful speeches from both the men, Briseis remains silent. Pat Barker finally gives her a voice.

Despite being based on a myth, the story feels incredibly real as Pat Barker doesn’t shy aware from writing about the realities of war. The war camp is filled with the rats, disease and the constant threat of violence. Barker shows how Briseis and the other women become objects belonging to the men who yesterday killed their husbands and brothers.

Most of the book is told in the first person from Briseis’s viewpoint, but about half way through we also get chapters in the close third person, from Achilles perspective. Achilles character is beautifully portrayed in all his cruelty and violence, but he never becomes just a monster, he is always a real man with complex emotions. Despite this, I much preferred Briseis’s chapters and wonder if the book would lose anything if it was told only in her voice.

There has been a flurry of feminist retellings of myths recently but I think this is one of the best. It made me look at ‘The Iliad’ differently and it raises questions about who gets to tell our stories. At one point in the novel Briseis tries to run away from Achilles and chose her own fate, but she is unable to do so. She concludes that she can never escape the story that ultimately belongs to Achilles.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 

An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial. They are a young married couple planning their “American dream” future together when the unthinkable happens and Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. We watch as their plans for their lives unravel and we hear the story from the viewpoint of three different characters.

It is difficult to discuss the plot without giving too much away, because there are a few surprise twists and turns that I didn’t expect. It deals with themes of loyalty, family, history, race and the American justice system. All three of the main characters are so realistically portrayed with all their dreams and faults that you are always invested in their stories, even if you don’t always find them likeable.

Although I felt some of the other books in the shortlist were more innovative, this is one of the most beautifully written. I love the way Tayari Jones weaves words together. I also found it very moving. For me the letters Roy and Celestial write to each other while he is in prison were the most powerful. Several chapters near the middle of the book are made up of just these letters and it is handled so skilfully that it’s all we need to move the story along.

Fiona and Phillipa, Brompton Library

 

 

Women’s Prize Shortlist – Part 1

In this series of posts, we will be reviewing the books shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was announced on Monday 29 April.

Circe by Madeline Miller

In this retelling of Circe’s story, Miller takes us into the world of ancient Greece from a female viewpoint.  Most commonly known as the enchantress who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and him into her lover, Circe comes to life in this gripping and well-told tale.  She still turns men who displease her into pigs, but the story adds flesh to her bones and turns her from a female stereotype, into a goddess with a lot of earthly humanity.

Starting life in the court of her father, Helios the Sun God, Circe discovers that she can use flowers to transform people.  When she innocently admits her magical powers to her father, he banishes her to the island of Aeaea.  On her island, Circe lives in a house filled with everything she needs, surrounded by trees and beaches, alone except for the lions that live with her and the creatures of the woods.  She is visited by several interesting characters such as Medea and Odysseus, which feels like having access to secret stories and conversations. The island is both a great freedom and a prison for Circe and we see her, over the few thousand years of the story, struggle with her fate and isolation, grow into her power, fall in love and watch those she has loved die.

There is a lot of debate about whether it is right to retrospectively empower ancient characters.  Circe is three dimensional and flawed.  She stays true to herself despite her isolation, and does not resort to the power games of the male dominated world of the gods, but she is also not afraid to use her power.  She serves men graciously when it suits her but is not afraid to use her powers when it doesn’t.

This is an engrossing novel that is difficult to put down.  A review says it should be read in one sitting.  Quite long to be read all at once, but a great holiday read or for a time when you can dedicate a few hours at a time to it.

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Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Set in London in 2008 following the election of Barak Obama, two couples are in crisis.  In an interview with the author on the Women’s Prize website, the author says that she wanted to write a story about how marriage effects both men and women and she does this very well, letting all the characters be both likeable and flawed.  The novel covers a lot of ground including motherhood, modern relationships, race, identity, home, ancestral and historical ties, but does so with a deft hand, bringing all these layers together and weaving them around each other.

Through the novel, she takes us into the routine, day-to-day family life and transforms it with her colourful, rhythmic writing.  She really takes time to tell the story, bringing small details to life, while keeping a steady ebb and flow to the pace of the melodic writing.  Music features throughout, bringing us closer to the characters, who they are and what they are going through emotionally.  The couples weave in and out of each other’s lives, physically and emotionally, and the past weaves into the present with memories of the early days of their relationships and references to parents, grandparents and distant countries of origin.

London features vividly throughout with many references to Chrystal Palace both now and historically, the 176 bus route lined with chicken shops, a wedding in Greenwich, shopping at Selfridges and bridges over the Thames.  The city is brought to life, its colours, intensity, its moods and its history, and it looms large even though ultimately it is the backdrop to the slower, subtler journey of the characters.  I found the book funny, engaging and incredibly moving and I enjoyed the feeling of being told a story, the music references and all the layers that Evans creates from the ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Watch this space as the winner will be announced Wednesday 5 June.

Fiona,
Library Customer Service Officer, Brompton Library

A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Brompton Graphic Novel Reading Group- The Bad doctor

Hello and welcome to the Brompton Library Graphic Novel Reading Group.

For the next session, Monday 8 April, 6:30pm, we will be discussing Doctor Ian Williams’ illustrated anecdotes of The Bad Doctor.

Cartoonist and Dr Ian Williams takes his stethoscope to Dr Iwan James, a rural GP in need of more than a little care himself. Incontinent old ladies, men with eagle tattoos, traumatised widowers, Iwan’s patients cause him both empathy and dismay, further complicated by his feelings for his practise partners: unrequited longing for Dr Lois Pritchard and frustration at the antics of Dr Robert Smith, who will use any means to make Iwan look bad in his presence. Iwan’s cycling trips with his friend and mentor, Arthur, provide some welcome relief for him.

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“The territory of doctor as patient has been visited before, but Dr. Williams’s iteration and its resolution are as subtle and thought provoking as the best of them, with the always worthwhile message that the roles into which humans sort themselves are as mutable as the rituals they accept and reject, and the calls for help they choose to hear or not.” -The New York Times

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“Replete with sometimes delicate, sometimes explicit observations about the foibles of human nature and the bureaucracy of healthcare, The Bad Doctor combines wickedly black humour with subtle characterisation that never fails to engage the audience’s empathy.” -Broken Frontier          

If you have any other suggestions for the reading list, then please let me know and we’ll try our best to accommodate. So far we have the following for consideration:

  • Casandra Darke
  • Cry Havoc
  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • Barakamon
  • Hellblaizer
  • V for Vendetta
  • Jaco the Galactic Patrolman
  • The Legend of Wonder Woman
  • The Flintstones Vol. 2: Bedrock Bedlam
  • Uncanny X-Force Vol. 1: Apocalypse Solution
  • My Brother’s Husband, Volume 1
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

The reading group takes place on the second Monday evening of every month. There may be a pub quiz afterwards if you want to join in!

See you there! Bring snacks.

David Bushell
Library Customer Services Officer
Brompton Library

Barn Burning – a short story from The Elephant Vanishes written by Haruki Murakami 

A married man meets a young girl who works as an advertising model and studies pantomime.  They meet sometimes and go out for meals and he enjoys talking to her.  One day her father dies and she asks him to look after her cat while she travels to Africa.

When she returns, she has a new boyfriend in tow, a rich young man with a European sports car.  The girl and the boyfriend turn up at his house with lunch one afternoon and, after a few drinks, the young man admits to enjoying burning barns, an admission that creates an obsession in the older man.

True to his style, the story is simple with many subtle complexities and ambiguities.

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Burning – a film directed by Lee Chang-Dong

In the film, the main character, now called Jongsu, is no longer an older married man but a recent graduate with no money or parental support, trying to make his way as a writer.  Making him younger, adds a coming of age element that is reminiscent of Murakami’s other work such as Norwegian Wood.  The relationship between Jongsu and Hai-mae is more developed and her Americanised boyfriend Ben, now a Jongsu’s peer, becomes his rival.

The location of the story has moved from Tokyo to Seoul and Paju, the small town where Jongsu grew up.  Barns are now greenhouses, more appropriate to the South Korean countryside, and propaganda messages can be heard coming over the border from North Korea.  At one point there is news coverage of Trump talking about America in the background, making the film relevant and contemporary, while keeping and expanding on the important elements of the story and paying a lot of respect to Murakami.

Chang-Dong has taken the story and turned it into an unsettling and mysterious film that builds into a gripping thriller.

Beautifully shot and acted with a great soundtrack.

Inspirational female authors – International Women’s Day 2019

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, 8 March, is a date to celebrate the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women. It all began over a century ago and today it is observed all over the world. It is also a day to reflect on improving gender equality and for 2019 the theme is #BalanceforBetter.

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At Brompton library, we have been celebrating the literary achievement of women with a series of book reviews. Since International Women’s Day in 2018, I have been doing regular reviews of books by inspirational female authors. In total I have read eleven books by eleven amazing female writers. It is hard to pick a favourite because the books are all so different and written in different styles.

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I loved some of the books because of their subject matter or the worlds they created. There are the feminist dystopias of The Power, The Water Cure and Red Clocks which comment on gender equality in our own society. There is Helen Dunmore’s novel that explores how a female writer from the eighteenth century could be completely forgotten by history. Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood’s novels reimagine classic myths and fairy tales from a feminist perspective.

I found some of the books inspirational because of their authors. Such as Zadie Smith, who was published at a young age and has gone on to win many literary awards or Toni Morrison, who was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Then there is Malala Yousafzai, who almost lost her life standing up for women’s rights.

Because the books are from different eras, it made me reflect on the journey of women’s rights. Roxane Gay’s essays are a funny and insightful look into the struggles of being a modern feminist, whereas Emily Bronte, who had to publish Wuthering Heights under a male pseudonym, is a reminder of how far we’ve come.

I hope you have been as inspired as me by these great reads! And I’m sure you can think of many more inspirational female authors to add to this list.

 

 

Inspirational female authors: Zadie Smith

As we get ready to celebrate International Women’s Day next month, we are continuing with our inspirational female authors blog series. For February, I will be reviewing White Teeth by Zadie Smith 

White Teeth was Zadie Smith’s first novel, which was published when she was just twenty-four years old. It went on to have huge critical success and it won several awards, including the 2000 Whitbread Book Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. It has also more recently been adapted for the stage.

It is difficult to give a quick, neat synopsis of what White Teeth is about because it weaves between many characters, timelines and settings. It is a tale of immigration and belonging and at its heart are two unlikely friends, Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. The book follows their stories and the stories of their families.

It is not a quick read and it has been criticised as needing editing as there is backstory upon backstory. Not only do you know the life of the main characters’ parents, but their parents and even their parents too. But I loved it, you really sink into the lives of the characters. I loved how you slowly learn how the threads of their lives intertwine and then collide towards the end, over the most bizarre spectacle.

It deals with some difficult, serious topics but it is also very funny. I don’t laugh easily at books, but I found myself chuckling at some of the lines and scenes in this.  Zadie Smith brings her own fresh perspective to the tale of an immigrant in Britain and although she has been compared to many other writers, I think she has a strong, unique voice.

Next month we will recap all the books we have reviewed this year, to coincide with International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Philippa, Brompton Library